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  • Courtesy of Picnic Wine Co.

    Picnic Wine Co. partners, left to right, Grant Hemingway, Jeff Anderson and Zach Bryan aim to produce wines meant for high value and easy drinking, such as the chenin blanc.

Dunne on wine: Delta's chenin blanc evolving in different styles

Published: Wednesday, Jun. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

Almost as many questions as pears hover over the dark, rich soil of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Will the Bay Delta Conservation Plan get built? If so, how disruptive will it be to the Delta's long and varied agrarian traditions?

How many vineyards, orchards and fields will be taken out? Will the 717 acres of "muck" to be excavated for the construction of two massive water tunnels be suitable for new plantings?

Far down the list is the question of what the plan could mean to the Delta's rising standing for the white wine chenin blanc.

While one Delta farmer frets about the loss of prime vineyard land to the construction, another says once the tunnels are installed and buried, vines simply can be restored above them.

In the meantime, Delta grape growers and vintners with a vested interest in the green grape chenin blanc are going about business as usual, which involves transforming the fruit into the kind of delicate, gentle, refreshing wine best suited for summer.

They're also engaged in a quiet campaign to get chenin blanc recognized as Sacramento's house wine – the wine most closely identified with the city, in large part for the proximity of the Delta and for the estuary's reputation as one of the wine world's more highly regarded appellations for chenin blanc. For decades, the area's sustaining soils, sunny days and cool breezes have been the ideal incubator for chenin blanc, yielding a wine fruity, snappy and fleetingly honeyed, the kind of wine splendid for pairing with oysters or with summery pasta dishes, with or without other kinds of seafood.

Members of the Delta wine trade especially keen on raising chenin blanc's profile have two allies. One is the Sacramento chapter of Slow Food USA, a multi-pronged organization working to heighten consumer awareness of culinary ingredients and customs. Toward that goal, it is lobbying to have chenin blanc from Clarksburg added to Slow Food's Ark of Taste, a catalog of foods and beverages threatened with extinction.

(Whether chenin blanc is endangered is open to debate. Granted, California vineyard land devoted to chenin blanc has declined from 45,000 acres two decades ago to a little more than 6,000 acres today; nearly 1,000 acres disappeared in the past year alone. On the other hand, recently released state and federal statistics on vineyards in California list 154 acres of chenin blanc as nonbearing, meaning they were planted over the previous three years and have yet to start yielding commercial crops. The upshot is that while chenin blanc has been giving ground to more profitable grape varieties, there is a glimmer of hope that it could rebound.)

The other group promoting chenin blanc is the Green Restaurants Alliance Sacramento, a coalition of restaurateurs and chefs campaigning for more sustainable practices in the culinary arts, such as recycling, composting and using local products.

In April, on a day so hot it felt more like summer than spring, thus perfect for a glass of chenin blanc, the two groups convened a tasting of chenin blancs from the Clarksburg area, the varietal's epicenter in the Delta.

Conducted at Revolution Wines in Sacramento, the tasting raised a few other questions: Where is chenin blanc headed stylistically? Will it remain the pleasantly frisky summer white that long has been the model?

Will it be gussied up into a heftier and more layered interpretation inspired by France's Vouvrays, a take on the varietal more powerful than customarily found in California? Will the trend to blend a bit of viognier into chenin blanc become the new standard? Or is there room for all sorts of chenin blancs, which would not be unprecedented?

To judge by the 10 chenin blancs poured at the tasting, the traditionally light and simple style identified with the Delta still is dominant, but the varietal is fast diversifying. Dry to off-dry interpretations edge out the sweet, but just barely. Bogle Vineyards, the largest producer in the Delta, is sticking with the plump and decidedly sweet style of chenin blanc popular in the 1950s, to judge by its 2012.

Duke Heringer of Twisted Rivers Winery added 20 percent viognier to his 2012 chenin blanc to bolster its fruitiness, spiciness and floral aromatics, a practice also adopted by Clarksburg Wine Co. for one of its three styles of chenin blanc.

Revolution Wines sticks to pure chenin blanc, but works it in the cellar to show off an earthier and more voluminous side to the grape.

To this palate, the freshest, liveliest and most limber take on the varietal in the day's lineup was the Blue Plate 2012 Clarksburg Dry Chenin Blanc. To seize both the brightness of the Delta sunshine and the invigorating snap of its cool breezes, the grapes went from vine to bottle with just a minimum of fuss.

The fruit was fermented solely in stainless-steel tanks, no other grape variety was added, no sugar was retained and no oak was applied. To preserve the wine's crisp acidity, malolactic fermentation was avoided.

The result is a chenin blanc a bit heftier and longer in the finish than two earlier versions produced by Blue Plate but still with the Delta's characteristic suggestion of lightly roasted nectarines, peaches and pears drizzled with just a thread of honey and a sprinkle of spice.

Blue Plate is a brand of Picnic Wine Co. in Napa. As both names suggest, the three partners are aiming to produce a portfolio of wines meant for high value and easy drinking, the sort of wine that would be at home in old-fashioned American diners if old-fashioned American diners served wine as well as shakes and coffee. The three started with chenin blanc and are adding grenache to their lineup.

"We want Blue Plate to be an affordable nightly wine that we ourselves would like to drink," said Grant Hemingway, founder and general manager of Picnic Wine Co. "We were in our late 20s, living on tight pocketbooks and asking ourselves where we can find a good $10 wine," added Hemingway, a graduate in viticulture and enology from UC Davis.

Chenin blanc appealed to them as their first wine because they liked the directness of its fruit, because they could buy grapes at a price that would let them market the wine at around $10, and because while the wine generally is taken casually it also carries "enough seriousness and complexity for a white- tablecloth restaurant."

Nevertheless, with the 2012 vintage they are releasing a second chenin blanc with more heft and layering, an interpretation of the varietal even more appropriate for fine dining. Their Diner 2012 Clarksburg Chenin Blanc is fleshy and complex, its weight and complexity due to six months of storing the wine on its lees, the aging of a small portion of the wine in French oak barrels, the retention of a bit of residual sugar, and the blending in of small portions – 9 percent each – of chardonnay and semillon. (Diner, in this instance, is pronounced in the French manner, dee-NAY.)

"It's more of a French-style chenin blanc," says Hemingway. "We had been discarding the lees, even though they tasted delicious." (Lees is the sediment – grape seeds, skins, pulp and the like – that settles at the bottom of a tank during fermentation. Wines generally are drawn quickly off the lees, but often prolonged contact and stirring is encouraged to enhance a wine's texture and complicate its flavor.)

Whether lees contact becomes the next trendy thing in the making of chenin blanc is but one more question over the Delta and its vineyards.

Blue Plate 2012 Clarksburg Dry Chenin Blanc

By the numbers: 12.1 percent alcohol, 3,300 cases, $10-$11.

Context: Grant Hemingway likes the 2012 Blue Plate with a wide range of foods, especially spicy preparations involving seafood. "Any combination of herbaceous, spicy and citrus plays well with our wine because I found those nuances in the wine," Hemingway said.

Availability: The Blue Plate Chenin Blanc is available in the Sacramento region at Corti Brothers, Selland's Market and The Wine Consultant. Blue Plate wines also are available at the winery's website,

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at and reach him at

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